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Ringling Circus Museum relives the glory years in Sarasota

The Greatest Show on Earth!

Before Disney World, the winter circus in Sarasota was Florida’s biggest attraction, and the Ringling Circus Museum brings back those memories of yesteryear, when hawkers filled the streets with calls to see “The world’s grandest, largest, best, amusement institution.”

Sarasota has been associated with circuses since 1912, when John Ringling, one of five brothers who owned the Ringling Bros. Circus, began buying land there.

From 1927 to 1959, Sarasota was the winter home of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined circus.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” shut down in May 2017 amid a furor over animal rights, only to revive for the 2023-2024 season animal-free. The new version of the circus is now touring the country.

The circus past and present is still part of Sarasota’s fabric.

Built to amaze!

ringling circus museum midway model
Museum model of the midway, where animals were on display before being trotted into the Big Top for the show. The newly revived circus is now animal-free, but there’s no denial of their legacy with the circus. (Photo by Zinnia Jones)

Memories of the pageants, clowns, exotic animal acts, aerialists, trapeze artists and others who made the circus such a phenomenon are carefully preserved in the Ringling Circus Museum.

Sarasota’s Circus Arts Conservatory presents Sailor Circus and Circus Sarasota in a big top tent near the UTC Mall at University Parkway and I-75.

Many of the city’s long-time residents are former circus performers and workers. 

In four former Ringling Bros. train cars, Bob’s Train restaurant preserves circus history with more than 900 historic photographs, along with serving burgers and salads. It’s a local hangout for circus folks.

The Ringling Circus Museum tracks the 250-year history of the modern circus from 1768 when Philip Astley, a British cavalry officer, began staging feats on horseback and other performances in a mixed program, until today, when smaller circuses are still touring with programs of clowns, acrobats, occasional animal acts and feats of skill.

“It’s still magic,” said Heidi Taylor, whose father was a circus performer and early curator of the Ringling Circus Museum, located in two buildings on the grounds of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art. “I hope it always will be magic.”

Wondrous surprises for young and old!

ringling circus museum under the big top
Model depicts multiple acts performing at once, the trademark of a three-ring circus. In 1957, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus dropped the big top in favor of large sports arenas, but other circuses maintained the tradition. (Photo by Zinnia Jones)

The centerpiece of the Ringling Circus Museum is a 3,800-square-foot model of the circus from its Golden Age of 1919 to 1938, designed by Howard Tibbals.

The “Howard Bros. Circus” model is to scale – ¾ inch representing one foot — and thoroughly researched to depict the Big Top circus at a time when it traveled with 1,300 workers and 500 animals – and performed in a tent that held 13,000 to 15,000 audience members.

The model shows what life was like on circus day, including in the circus’ “backyard,” where all of the workers and animals were fed, repairs were made to wagons, tents and costumes, acts were practiced, and animals trained.

After seeing the model, visitors might be content to move on to the Ringling Museum’s other attractions, including John and Mabel Ringling’s magnificent Venetian Gothic manor house on Sarasota Bay, Ca’ d’Zan, and the large, well-respected art museum, but there’s plenty more circus history to see after the circus model.

ringling circus museum vintage poster
Vintage circus poster on display at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota. (Photo by Zinnia Jones)

Upstairs in the Tibbals Learning Center is a traditional museum exhibit tracing the history of the circus and featuring costumes and other historical artifacts, as well as a highly detailed ½-inch scale model of the largest circus parade anyone could imagine. This one was imagined by Tibbal’s mentor, Howard Dunn, who based the parade units, wagons, animals, and costumes on historic elements, but embellished them.

At the entrance of the TIbbals Learning Center is a 42-foot by 22-foot mural of The Greatest Show that was created for the headquarters of Feld Entertainment, which owned the circus for 50 years, from 1967 until it closed in 2017.

Also in the Tibbals is a hands-on space where you can try walking a tightrope, squeeze into a clown car, and see more costumes, artifacts and props used in circus acts.

ringling circus museum display
Display at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota. (Photo by Zinnia Jones)

Feel the magic up close

The Circus Museum in the original 1940s-era building next door to the Tibbals Center is home to original circus wagons and a fully restored Pullman train car, The Wisconsin, in which John and Mabel Ringling traveled across the country searching for art for their home and museum as well as acts for the circus.

ringling circus museum circus wagon
Whenever the circus came to town, there would be a parade from the train yard to the circus venue to promote the circus. The parade would consist of several coaches, including brass bands, lions and tigers in cages, clowns and aerialists running up and down the street alongside, and a string of elephants and their trainers pulling up the rear of the parade. This circus wagon is on display at the Ringling Circus Museum. (Photo by Zinnia Jones.)

Another must-see in the Circus Museum is a film narrated by Hal Holbrook about the Ringlings, the history of the circus, and the construction of Ca’ d’Zan and the art museum, which Ringling built in 1928 and willed to the state of Florida upon his death.

Circus Museum volunteers work as wood carvers helping to restore wagons and other circus ornaments, as well as hand-painting new items created by Howard Tibbals for the model.

“New things are added to the model all the time,” said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Ringling Curator of Circus.

A portion of the museum is under-utilized, but long-term plans include improving the exhibits with more information about the various wagons, train cars and equipment on display.

“We steward the history of the circus,” Posey said. Other organizations, such as Sarasota’s Circus Arts Conservatory, “are the living legacy.”

Come one, come all!

The Ringling Museum: Admission to the museum includes the Circus Museum, the first-floor of Ca’ d’Zan and the expansive John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, as well as a free tram tour of the grounds and gardens.

The Historic Asolo Theater is an actual 18th-century Italian theater purchased by the Ringling Museum, moved to Sarasota from Italy and reconstructed in the museum grounds.

The campus is also home to the new Asolo Repertory Theater, which stages a diverse season of plays and musicals.

Also on campus, but hardly an also-ran, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art is a world-class showcase of art forms, established by the Ringling family in 1932 with a permanent collection of European art, gradually expanded with new galleries featuring 3,000 years of Asian art, rotating travel exhibits of glass art, as well as a community gallery celebrating local artistry.

Circus Arts Conservatory: Live circus shows are staged under the Big Top in Sarasota during the winter season. The CAC also provides circus training, camps and classes as well as community outreach.

Bob’s Train: The circus-themed restaurant is off Fruitville Road in four historic circus train cars.  From Fruitville, turn north on School Avenue and take the first right. 2211 Fruitville Rd, Sarasota, FL 34237

Revival: The circus is back!

The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is back on the road after shutting down in 2017 amid a furor over animal rights. The latest version of the circus is animal-free and is touring the country once again.

For a complete list of 2024 Tour Dates: Go to

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Suann Newman

Friday 26th of January 2024

Is there anyway, that I could find some information about a couple of workers that worked for the circus in the very early 1970's and before? My Grandmother always told me about her ex-brother in-laws that worked for Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus with the animals. Never knew anything about my grandfather. Just wonder if they kept names of their workers and what they did for the circus? If you have any kind of info., I would love to hear about it. Thanks

Bonnie Gross

Saturday 27th of January 2024

We don't have that information, but you might try the Sarasota Historical Society

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